Mary Shelley and the horror of maternity

Sady Doyle
May 22, 2017 · 16 min read

Listen to this story



Before it happens, women start dreaming.

Dreams about water are common, at first. Floods, rising tides, overflowing bathtubs. So are dreams about long journeys; women find themselves being rushed off to the airport in the middle of the night, not sure if they’ve packed enough for the trip, sometimes not even sure where they’re supposed to go or why.

These dreams are symptoms. Nearly everyone has them. They can’t be explained as a simple reaction to circumstances; they often start before the women themselves know what’s happening. Some women remember getting the same coded message for weeks — I’m going somewhere new; I’m not ready — before they actually take the pregnancy test and realize that their unknown destination is a baby.

As the pregnancy progresses, the dreams get more involved and vivid. They also get worse. Pregnant women dream more than the rest of us, and most of the dreams are bad; by the third trimester, they report having nightmares two and a half times more often than the average person. Often, these are dreams about abandoning the baby, or not knowing how to care for it; women dream about accidentally leaving their child in a dishwasher, or about putting it down somewhere and not being able to find it when they come back. One nightmare, which is evidently common enough to have its own name — the “baby in bed” dream — consists of knowing that your baby is trapped somewhere in the bed with you. You hear it crying, you know it’s in trouble. Yet no matter where you look, no matter how many blankets you tear off searching for it, you can never quite find it. Your baby is always inches away, screaming for you, yet just out of reach.

But the most common dream, by far, is that the fetus isn’t human. That it’s wrong, somehow. Woman after woman after woman reports this specific dream, with minor variations: giving birth to rabbits, dogs, a full litter of kittens, a lamp, a toothbrush, ground meat. In one woman’s dream, “I went in for a scan and was told the baby was a lobster. It was very matter of fact. I was like, ‘Oh, well, I hope I’ll get a human baby next time.’” In others, the babies are technically human, but drastically off the mark; women dream about giving birth to full-grown adults, or a baby with a man’s head and an endless neck, or “a tuxedo-wearing, cigar-smoking dwarf” who tells dirty jokes to the hospital staff, or “a little boy with a really hairy back” that lives in a fish tank.

Or, worst of all, there can be something really wrong with it. The baby can be more than ugly; it can be evil. One woman gave birth to a monster; a dog that ended the world. “[It] literally destroyed humanity and enslaved those who lived,” she said, “and came calling me mommy if any battle didn’t go as planned.”

These are the dreams women have at the beginning. So we’ll start here: On a book that begins and ends with a long journey over water, a ship trapped in ice at the end of the world. A book about abandonment; about not knowing how to care for the life you’ve created; about being horrified to discover your child is not quite human. One of the cornerstones of the horror genre as we know it is a book about a monster that comes calling for mommy, and it started with one mother’s bad dream.

Mary Shelley’s description of the daydream that sparked Frankenstein is, by now, nearly as famous as the book itself. “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” etcetera, etcetera. You’ve heard it all before. Yet there is still, somewhere in that story, a hidden kinship with the woman who dreamed about carrying a healthy baby lobster.

“His success would terrify the artist,” Shelley wrote; “he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter… He sleeps, but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”

He sleeps, but he is awakened. It’s this kind of tiny, perfect, almost accidental-sounding detail that reminds you exactly who wrote this, the girliest of all classic monster stories.

Plenty of people — particularly male people — have interpreted Frankenstein as a primarily technological story, as much science fiction as it is horror. They see it as a parable of scientific hubris; a man is driven to push his experimentation past the limits of reason or safety, and pays a terrible price. This is how Frankenstein has been remembered in pop culture, both in terms of its adaptations — dungeon laboratories, white-coated scientists screeching IT’S ALIVE!!!!, lightning bolts everywhere, none of which is in Shelley’s novel — and in terms of the works it’s influenced. Jurassic Park and Westworld are both riffs on the Frankenstein story, with dino DNA and rogue AI taking the place of corpse reanimation. The Terminator owes Frankenstein several huge debts; not only does it take large chunks of its premise from Shelley, but Schwarzenegger’s lumbering, sub-verbal, implacable performance as a killer robot owes more than a little to Boris Karloff.

Still, in Shelley’s original text, Frankenstein was insistently biological, more The Omen than Ex Machina. For evidence, I can think of nothing better than this detail — which, by the way, made it into the finished book. The first thing Victor Frankenstein does, after creating his monster, is pass out. And the first thing that monster does, once it’s been created, is to wake him right back up again. It’s the sort of thing that Mary Shelley included, whereas a male author in her place might not even recognize its significance. As a mother, she knew that giving birth, hard though it might be, is only half the battle. The really hard part comes when the baby keeps waking you up in the middle of the night, demanding attention.

In fact, the science of Victor Frankenstein’s science has always been more than a little sketchy. As the Internet has delighted in pointing out, Frankenstein is not really a doctor, or any kind of established scientist, when he builds his monster; he’s essentially a college freshman, experimenting with life and death in his spare time. Nor does he strike the reader as being that much smarter or better-educated than his fellow students; before he arrives at school, his education is so limited that he reads texts by magicians and alchemists, assuming they’re real scientific works. Granted, this does pan out — Frankenstein makes his great discovery — but Shelley, notably, does not actually portray that discovery in any convincing or even pseudo-scientific way. The book sums it up thusly:

[The] stages of discovery were distinct and probable. After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life. Nay more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.

As far as drama goes, this is like replacing the entire last half of Ocean’s 11 with a shot of George Clooney saying, “In the end, I succeeded in robbing the casino.” There’s an authorial handwave for the omission; Victor is, supposedly, telling this story to an Arctic sea captain, and doesn’t want to go into detail lest the captain be tempted to recreate the experiment. Still, you can see why the movies had to add all that lightning. Victor Frankenstein’s dreadful reanimation process — the core concept of the book, and probably its main attraction from a science-fiction standpoint — simply isn’t in Frankenstein.

But it doesn’t need to be. In fact, Man has always known “the cause of generation and life,” and Victor’s goal — “the creation of a human being,” in his words — has always been within Man’s grasp. If it weren’t, we’d have no humans. The process only seems like a mystery to Man because Woman typically does the manufacturing.

At the risk of stating the obvious: Biology is not gender. Plenty of transgender men have been pregnant and/or given birth, as have non-binary people. Still, childbirth and child rearing — particularly in Shelley’s time — have always been seen as women’s work. They’re not exclusively female, but they are (ahem) feminized labor. And, though Mary Shelley veiled her gender by filtering her voice through a whole cast of male narrators — and through anonymity; her name did not appear on Frankenstein until 1822, four years after it was published — she still found ways to sneak her own female experience into the picture. Motherhood permeates this book so deeply that it’s in every metaphor; less a subtext than the actual material of which the narrative is crafted.

While building his monster, for instance, Frankenstein mentions that “winter, spring and summer passed away during my labours” — which is to say, about nine months. (Later, confusingly enough, he tells us it took two years, though he may be including his original studies in that time frame.) Though Frankenstein can be swept away in sentimental raptures at times — “a new existence would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” — there’s also the gnawing worry that something will go wrong before he reaches the finish line: “[Now] every day shewed me more plainly how well I had succeeded. But my enthusiasm was checked by my anxiety[.]” The fatigue he experiences is a killer. Not to mention the insomnia and mood swings: “Every night a slow fever oppressed me, and I became nervous to a most painful degree — a disease I regretted the more because I had hitherto enjoyed excellent health and had boasted of the firmness of my nerves.”

Victor Frankenstein isn’t just experimenting. Victor Frankenstein is pregnant. And, wisely, he writes off much of his discomfort as part of the process; “I believed that exercise and amusement would soon drive away [my] symptoms, and I promised myself both of these when my creation should be complete.”

After his creation is complete, of course, exercise and amusement will become all but impossible. But that’s the least of his problems.

Just as Frankenstein’s creation process resembles pregnancy, it’s tempting to see Frankenstein’s loathing for his creature as a kind of supernatural postpartum depression.

“For this,” he tells us, “I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but, now that I had succeeded, these dreams vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”

Note: The monster hasn’t actually done anything wrong at this point. He hasn’t threatened Frankenstein in any way; he’s just ugly. Indeed, the tragedy of Frankenstein comes from the reader’s growing suspicion that the monster wouldn’t have done anything wrong, had Victor been a willing parent. His terrible rage — the drive for revenge which consumes half the book, along with Victor’s life, loved ones, health, and sanity — comes only after he’s been abandoned, set adrift in a hostile world with no moral guidance. In his early days, the nine-foot-tall corpse-monster is hilariously, almost adorably baby-like. In her parenting memoir Little Labors, Rivka Galchen runs down the parallels: Descriptions of the monster peeping over the edge of Victor’s bed while he sleeps, or clinging to the knees of an old man and sobbing when threatened. My favorite bit comes when the newborn monster is wandering around outside and gets his clothes soaked with dew: “I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch,” he remembers. “I knew and could distinguish nothing, but feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept.”

Pro-tip: The next time you see a baby wailing due to a wet diaper, try to imagine it delivering this monologue, preferably in a stern, Patrick-Stewart-y baritone.

Boris Karloff in‘Frankenstein’, 1931. Photo: Getty

So the monster, like all newborns, is innocent. Still, Victor doesn’t love him. Plenty of women do not, in fact, love their babies — not right away, not with the all-encompassing, instinctive rush of devotion we’re told is a natural part of being a mother. By all accounts, it’s a wrenching experience. Not only are these women overwhelmed by physical pain and sleep deprivation and the needy, shrieking reality of the creatures they’ve created; they believe they’re bad people, or unnatural women, for being overwhelmed. And they feel this way despite (or maybe because of) the fact that instant maternal love, like all varieties of instant love, is fictional; genuinely bonding with a baby takes anywhere from two weeks to most of a year.

“I nearly sunk to the ground through languor and extreme weakness,” the post-partum Frankenstein tells us, “and mingled with this horror, I felt the bitterness of disappointment. Dreams that had been my food and rest for so long a space were now become a hell to me. And the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete.”

In some ways, Victor Frankenstein is just like any new mother, consumed with the guilt that comes from facing an unspeakable truth: That having babies won’t fix or complete you, that they don’t automatically fulfill anyone or provide meaning to a life that otherwise lacks it, that you can become a parent without becoming a better or happier or more loving person. This thing, which he wanted so much, and whose arrival he expected to be the single most joyous and fulfilling event of his life, has become a real and imperfect part of the world. The responsibility is terrifying.

Yet Mary Shelley’s disappointment was more bitter than most — and her guilt cut deeper. To understand this, we need to go deeper into the origins of Frankenstein; not Shelley’s official version, the well-known daydream about the pale student, but her actual nightmare.

Mary Shelley’s daughter was named Clara. She died when she was two weeks old. It is amazing that Clara lived even that long, and there was almost certainly nothing Mary Shelley could have done to save her; she was born at least two months premature. Even in the 21st century, with access to the best medical technology in the world, babies that small only survive about half the time.

Still: “I think about the little thing all day,” Shelley told her journal afterwards. All night, too: “Dream that my little baby came to life again — that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it by the fire and it lived,” she wrote. “I awake and find no baby.”

Mary Shelley, 1831. Image: Getty

Frankenstein’s monster is not just a terrible birth. He is a dead birth, a miscarriage; at one point, he calls himself “an abortion.” Mary Shelley was not to blame for Clara’s death, but she didn’t know that. In her nightmares, she was still trying to undo whatever it was she’d done to kill her, thinking of ways to put life back into the dead. In her work, a bad parent is followed around forever by his own dead baby, punished for his selfishness and indifference by a corpse-like, child-like creature that refuses to let him forget, refuses to let him love anyone else, refuses to let him start a new family or focus on his work or do anything at all but feel the shame of his own terrible failure.

Of course, Frankenstein’s monster is also a birth that brings death with him. And, of course, Clara was not Shelley’s first encounter with the dangers of 19th-century childbirth. Mary Shelley was the daughter of feminist-founding mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who died of septicemia a few days after giving birth. Shelley was never allowed to forget what she’d done; not only were her famous mother’s accomplishments continually paraded before her, but her actual maiden name, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, had belonged to the dead woman first. (Is “Frankenstein” the name of the monster, or the doctor? It’s a family name; probably both.)

Over the course of the novel, the reader grows to hate Victor Frankenstein for his weakness. The turning point comes when the monster kills William, Victor’s baby brother, and frames the servant girl Justine, who was supposed to be watching him. Victor knows full well that the monster killed William — he spotted the monster not long afterward — and that Justine is innocent. He also knows she will be sentenced to death if she is found guilty. Yet he manages to attend her entire trial, and her sentencing, and even visits Justine’s cell in her final hours — at which point, she has permanently ruined her name by giving a false confession to make her jailers happy — without saying a word in her defense. Victor Frankenstein could save this woman’s life; all he would have to do is confess to his own wrongdoing in making the creature. Instead he sits in the corner, feeling sorry for himself, and lets Justine die while inwardly whimpering about “the horrid anguish that possessed me.”

Yet the entire book is filled with this kind of free-floating guilt and murder by contagion; yes, everyone who gets close to Victor dies, and no, he doesn’t put forth even a bare minimum of effort to stop this from happening, but in Shelley’s world, loving someone is always just a few steps removed from killing them. There is Victor’s fiancee Elizabeth, who contracts a fever and accidentally kills Victor’s mother by allowing her into the sickroom. There’s Justine, who gets sidetracked while babysitting and comes back to learn the baby is dead. Elizabeth’s first words, upon seeing William’s body, are “Oh, God! I have murdered my darling infant.” She had nothing to do with it, but her first instinct — one she may have been honing since Caroline Frankenstein walked into her sickroom — is to call herself a killer.

Mary Shelley was her own mad scientist and her own monster; she was a mother who killed her daughter and a daughter who killed her mother. Her symmetrical, unforgivable sins haunt the novel, and keep reappearing throughout in new guises, until the monstrous parent and the monstrous child finally reconcile in an act of mutual annihilation. Frankenstein’s monster wants to die, but can only do so after he succeeds in killing Victor Frankenstein; Victor Frankenstein wants to die, but has to kill his monster. In the end, they both disappear in the icy wasteland. Neither has a place in the world.

Why horror? Why did the great 19th-century female epic of childbirth have to be a monster story; why couldn’t it be sweet, tender, uplifting, all those things that we’re told motherhood must or should or will inevitably be?

Though Shelley’s experience of childbirth was brutal, it was not unique. In 1797, when Shelley was born, about 7.5 women died in childbirth for every 1,000 births that occurred; that number does not seem high, but given the lack of effective birth control or medical abortion, most women had lots of children. Their odds of survival got slimmer each time. Babies were even worse off; in the mid-18th century, over 25% of all English and Welsh children died before their fifth birthdays. Two of Shelley’s own children were statistics. Aside from Clara, her second child, William, died when he was two years old — only a few months after Frankenstein was published. Only her third, Percy, lived to adulthood.

We are not beyond this; it is not some ancient, unrecognizable barbarity, even if Mary Wollstonecraft did die because her doctor didn’t know he was supposed to wash his hands. Even today, up to 25% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage; the “slight spark of life” either catches, or it doesn’t, and no-one can bring it back once it’s gone. We can save more premature children; we have the technology to keep Clara Shelley alive, or to try. But every year, 23,000 American babies die before their first birthday, sometimes for no perceptible reason — overwhelmingly black babies, who are not given an adequate standard of medical care compared to their white counterparts. Maternal mortality may have fallen from the dizzying highs of the 1700s. But it is still the sixth most common cause of death for women between 20 and 34 — and, in the United States, it is rising.

In 2016, a mother whose baby has died dreams “of a baby in a washing machine. She’d stuffed in dirty clothes and closed the door. The lock clicked shut. Water rushed in. Then she saw him, floating behind the glass. Frantic, she jabbed at a keypad on the machine, searching for a code to unlock the door.” Rising water, lost children, a baby that is forever in danger and forever just out of reach; it’s all part of a story that goes back to Mary Shelley, dreaming of rubbing her own child’s body in front of a fire, trying to find some way to replace a spark that’s gone out.

Women are often embarrassed to write about motherhood, thinking the subject matter will cast them forever into the category of the twee, the adorable, the disposably and pitifully feminine. “It’s about motherhood,” Sarah Menkedick remembers telling an audience, “but you know, more than that!” She imagines that “readers will tune out the second they hear ‘motherhood.’ Their brains will be flooded with the beatific white light of diaper commercials, numbed by a singsong voice saying eat-your-peas!” Yet motherhood is not a diaper commercial or a pastel nursery set. Motherhood is not anything safe or familiar. Motherhood is a long journey over dark water, a trip to a place you’ve never been. It is a place where women must, inevitably, confront blood and pain and their own physical and mental limits. Some of those women will not survive.

Mary Shelley never treated motherhood as trivial. She couldn’t; she had seen too much. That knowledge is what fuels Frankenstein. Its brutal intimacy ripped open a vein of reproductive horror that is still flowing; Shelley birthed Alien and Eraserhead and Rosemary’s Baby just as surely as she informed any story about a mad scientist in a lab. She restored dignity to a marginalized, feminine experience by restoring its full dose of horror; she forced us to reckon honestly with motherhood by making it something to fear.

Sady Doyle

Written by

Author of “Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why” (Melville House, 2016). Seen at Elle, In These Times, and all across the Internet.

The Fearsome is Female
The Fearsome is Female
The Fearsome is Female

About this Collection

The Fearsome is Female

Horror has always been a way for women to speak the unspeakable — to talk about their lives, and the constraints of being female, more graphically and explicitly than they could in “polite” or respectable fiction. In this series, Sady Doyle dissects iconic women of the horror genre and their preoccupations, drawing connections between gender and the grotesque.

Horror has always been a way for women to speak the unspeakable — to talk about their lives, and the constraints of being female, more graphically and explicitly than they could in “polite” or respectable fiction. In this series, Sady Doyle dissects iconic women of the horror genre and their preoccupations, drawing connections between gender and the grotesque.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade